Telegraphy by James Bowman Lindsay

The following extract is from John Joseph Fahie's book A History of Wireless Telegraphy (Dodd, Meade, and Company, New York, 1902).

James Bowman Lindsay

The next to pursue the subject was J B Lindsay of Dundee, whose extensive labours in this, as well as in the department of electric lighting, have hitherto been little appreciated by the scientific world. Through the kind assistance of Dr Robert Sinclair of Dundee, I have lately collected a number of facts relating to this extraordinary man, and as I believe they will be new to most of my readers, I will draw largely from them in what follows.

James Bowman Lindsay was born at Carmyllie, near Arbroath, on September 8, 1799, and but for the delicacy of his constitution would have been bred a farmer. At an early age he evinced a great taste for reading, and every moment that he could spare from his work as a linen weaver was devoted to his favourite books. Often, indeed, he would be seen on his way to Arbroath with a web of cloth tied on his back and an open book in his hands; and, after delivering the cloth and obtaining fresh materials for weaving, he would return to Carmyllie in the same fashion. Encouraged by these studious habits, Lindsay's parents wisely arranged that he should go to St Andrews University. Accordingly, in 1821 he entered on his studies, and, self-taught though he had hitherto been, he soon made for himself a distinguished place among his fellow students, particularly in the mathematical and physical sciences, in which departments, indeed, he became the first student of his time. Having completed the ordinary four years' course, Lindsay entered as a student of theology, and duly completed his studies in the Divinity Hall; but he never presented himself for a licence, his habits of thought inclining more to scientific than to theological pursuits. In the long summer vacations he generally returned to his occupation of weaving, though latterly he took up teaching, and thus enjoyed more time for the prosecution of his own studies.

Coming to Dundee in 1829, he was appointed Science and Mathematical Lecturer at the Watt Institution, then conducted by a Mr M'Intosh. Soon after, Alexander Maxwell, the historian of Dundee, became a pupil, and this is the picture he has left us of Lindsay:-
When I was with Mr M'Intosh, I attended classes that were taught by Mr Lindsay, a man of profound learning and untiring scientific research, who, had he been more practical, less diffident, and possessed of greater worldly wisdom, would have gained for himself a good place amongst distinguished men. As it was, he remained little more than a mere abstraction, a cyclopaedia out of order, and went through life a poor and modest schoolmaster.

By the time I knew him he was devoting much of his attention to electricity, to the celerity with which it was transmitted to any distance, and to the readiness with which its alternating effects may be translated into speech - and I have no doubt he held in his hand the modern system of the telegraph, but it needed a wiser man than he to turn it to practical use. He also produced from galvanic cells a light which burned steadily for a lengthened period.

His acquaintance with languages was extraordinary, and almost equalled that of his famous contemporary, the Cardinal Mezzofanti. In 1828 he began the compilation of a dictionary in fifty languages, the object of which was to discover, if possible, by language the place where, and the time when, man originated. This stupendous undertaking, which occupied the main part of his life's work, he left behind in a vast mass of undigested manuscript, consisting of dissertations on language and cogitations on social science - a monument of unpractical and inconclusive industry. In 1845 he published 'A Pentecontaglossal Paternoster,' intended to serve as a specimen of his fifty tongued lexicon.

In 1858 he published 'The Chrono-Astrolabe,' for determining with certainty ancient chronology - a work on which he had been engaged for many years; and in 1861 'A Treatise on Baptism' which is a curious record of his philosophical knowledge. ...

In 1832 he obtained a situation as travelling tutor, which was to take him abroad for some time. We loved him as much as consists with a boy's nature to love his teacher, and subscribed for a silver snuff-box as a slight mark of our regard. ...

I am afraid that the situation of travelling tutor did not turn out well, for within two years Lindsay was back again in Dundee, and resumed his position of assistant teacher, arduously followmg at the same time his favourite studies.
The scope of his teaching at this time is shown by the following notice which appeared in the 'Dundee Advertiser' of April 11, 1834:-
J B Lindsay resumes classes for cultivating the intellectual and historical portions of knowledge and instruction on April 14, 1834, in South Tay Street, Dundee.

In a few weeks hence a course of lectures will be formed on frictional, galvanic, and voltaic electricity; magnetism; and electro-magnetism. The battery, already powerful, is undergoing daily augmentation. The light obtained from it is intensely bright, and the number of lights may be increased without limit.

A great number of wheels may be turned [by electricity], and small weights raised over pulleys.

Houses and towns will in a short time be lighted by electricity instead of gas, and heated by it instead of coal; and machinery will be worked by it instead of steam - all at a trifling expense.

A miniature view of all these effects will be exhibited, besides a number of subordinate experiments, including the discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy.
In March 1841, Lindsay was appointed teacher in the Dundee Prison on a salary of 50 a year, a post which he held for upwards of seventeen years, till October 1858. It is stated that shortly after taking up this office he could have obtained an appointment in the British Museum, a situation which would have been most congenial to his tastes, and which would certainly have led to a lasting recognition of his great abilities; but, being unwilling to leave his aged mother, he declined the offer - a rare example of devotion and self-denial. ...

Lindsay was a bachelor, and lived alone, buried, it might be said, in his books, collections of which, in history and philosophy, science and languages, were heaped in every comer of his dwelling - a small house of three apartments (11 South Union Street). The kitchen was filled with electrical apparatus, mostly the work of his own hands; and his little parlour was so crowded with books, philosophical apparatus, and other instruments of his labour, that it was difficult to move in it. To provide these things, he denied himself through life the ordinary comforts and conveniences, - bread and coffee, and other simple articles, forming the principal part of his diet. His house in time acquired a celebrity as one of the curiosities of Dundee, and men of learning from distant parts, not only of the kingdom but of the world, often came to pay him a visit.

In July 1858, on the recommendation of Lord Derby, then Prime Minister, her Majesty granted Lindsay an annual pension of 100 a year, "in recognition of his great learning and extraordinary attainments." This well-deserved bounty relieved him from the drudgery of a prison teacher, and henceforth to the close of his life he devoted himself entirely to literary and scientific pursuits.

Although never robust, Lindsay on the whole enjoyed tolerably good health through life, but trouble came at last. On June 24, 1862, he was seized with diarrhoea, which carried him off on June 29, 1862, in the sixty-third year of his age.

Although languages and chronology took up much (I am inclined to think too much) of Lindsay's time, still electricity and its applications were his first, as they were always his favourite, study. Amongst some notes and memoranda, bound up with his manuscripts in the Albert Institute, Dundee, he says:-
Previous to the discovery of Oersted, I had made many experiments on magnetism, with the view of obtaining from it a motive power. No sooner, however, was I aware of the deflection of the needle and the multiplication of the power by coils of wire than the possibility of power appeared certain, and I commenced a series of experiments in 1832. The power on a small scale was easily obtained, and during these experiments I had a clear view of the application of electricity to telegraphic communication. The light also drew my attention, and I was in a trilemma whether to fix upon the power, the light, or the telegraph. After reflection I fixed upon the light as the first investigation, and had many contrivances for augmenting it and rendering it constant. Several years were spent in experiments, and I obtained a constant stream of light on July 25, 1835. Having satisfied myself on this subject, I returned to some glossological investigations that had been left unfinished, and was engaged with these till 1843. In that year I proposed a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic, after having proved the possibility by a series of experiments. Inquiries on other subjects have since that time engaged my attention, but I eagerly desire to return to electricity.
The first public announcement of Lindsay's success in electric lighting was contained in a short paragraph in the 'Dundee Advertiser' of July 31, 1835; and on October 30 following the same paper published a letter on the subject from Lindsay himself:-
Electric Light.

Sir, - As a notice of my electric light has been extensively circulated, some persons may be anxious to know its present state, and my views respecting it.

The apparatus that I have at present is merely a small model. It has already cost a great deal of labour, and will yet cost a good deal more before my room is sufficiently lighted. Had circumstances permitted, it would have been perfected two years ago, as my plans were formed then. I am writing this letter by means of it, at 6 inches or 8 inches distant; and, at the present moment, can read a book at the distance of 1121\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize foot. From the same apparatus I can get two or three lights, each of which is fit for reading with. I can make it burn in the open air, or in a glass tube without air, and neither wind nor water is capable of extinguishing it. It does not inflame paper nor any other combustible. These are facts.

As I intend in a short time to give a lecture on the subject, my views on the further progress will be unfolded then. A few of these, however, may be mentioned just now.

Brilliant illumination will be obtained by a light incapable of combustion; and, on its introduction to spinning mills, conflagrations there will be unheard of. Its beauty will recommend it to the fashionable; and the producing apparatus, framed, may stand side by side with the piano in the drawing-room. Requiring no air for combustion, and emitting no offensive smell, it will not deteriorate the atmosphere in the thronged hall. Exposed to the open day, it will blaze with undiminished lustre amidst tempests of wind and rain; and, being capable of surpassing all lights in splendour, it will be used in lighthouses and for telegraphs. The present generation may yet have it burning in their houses and enlightening their streets. Nor are these predictions the offshoots of an exuberant fancy or disordered imagination. They are the anticipated results of laborious research and of countless experiments. Electricity, moreover, is destined for mightier feats than even universal illumination.

J B Lindsay.
Dundee, Oct, 28, 1836.
Lindsay's connection with electric telegraphy forms a very interesting episode. We have seen that from about the year 1830 he was familiar with telegraphic projects, and that he made them the subject of illustration in his classes. At this date electric telegraphs were distinctly in the air, but, like electric lighting, they had hardly advanced beyond the laboratory stage. Lindsay does not appear to have carried them much further for several years, for it was not until 1843 that he conceived the bold idea of a submarine telegraph to America by means of a naked wire and earth-batteries, "after having proved the possibility by a series of experiments."

It is true that at this time the earth-battery was known. It was first proposed by Kemp, of Edinburgh, in 1828; Prof Gauss in 1838 suggested its employment for telegraphic purposes, and Steinheil, acting on the suggestion, actually used it with some success on the Munich-Nanhofen Railway, twenty-two miles long; and Bain in October 1842 employed it for working clocks. Similarly, the idea of signalling with uninsulated wire and without any wire at all was not new, for, as we have seen, the possibility of doing so was in a manner forced on the notice of Steinheil in 1838 and on Morse in 1842, but Lindsay was certainly the first to combine the two principles in his daring proposal of an Atlantic telegraph; and this, be it remembered, at a time when electric telegraphy was still a young and struggling industry, and when submarine telegraphy was yet a dream.

On June 19, 1845, a short paragraph appeared in the 'Northern Warder,' Dundee, referring to a New York project of communicating between England and America by means of a submerged copper wire "properly covered and of sufficient size." This called forth the following letter from Lindsay, which was published in the same paper on June 26 following:-
Electric Telegraph to America.

Sir, - The few lines I now send you have been occasioned by a notice in your last in reference to an electric telegraph to America. Should the plan be carried into effect the following hints should be attended to: The wire should be of pure copper, as otherwise it would be injured by the electro-chemical action of the water. The wire must not be composed of parts joined by soldering, but welded together; this welding can be performed by electricity. In order to prevent the action of water on the wire, a button of a more oxidable metal should be welded to it at short distances; the best metal for this purpose would be lead. If soldered to the wire, it must be soldered by lead alone. No third metal must be used. If welded, it may be done by electricity. In this way the wire resting on the bottom of the sea might last a long time. The one end of the wire is then to be soldered or welded to a plate of zinc immersed in the ocean on the coast of Britain, and the other end similarly joined to a plate of copper deposited in the same ocean on the coast of America. In reference to the expense, suppose the wire to be a ninth or tenth of an inch diameter, then the length of 100 inches would contain a cubic inch of copper, and three miles of wire would contain a cubic foot, weighing 9000 ounces, of the value of about 36 sterling. Owing to the inequalities in the bottom of the ocean, the distance to America might be 3000 miles, and the expense 36,000 sterling - a trifle when compared with the resulting benefit. The only injury that the wire is likely to undergo is from submarine eruptions. It may be broken by these. The two ends, however, being accessible, the greater part of the wire may be drawn up, and the necessary length of wire welded to it. It should be remembered that this welding must be done by electricity. To Calcutta, by the Cape of Good Hope, the expense would be 200,000. The wire from Calcutta to Canton would cost 70,000, to New Zealand 120,000, to Tahiti nearly 200,000. A wire might be placed round the coast of Britain, and another along the coast of America. There might be stations at different towns and electric clocks agreeing with each other to a second of time. Each town might have a specific time for intelligence. Suppose Dundee to have the hour from nine to ten. From nine to ten minutes past nine, messages are sent and answers received between Dundee and New York. From ten minutes to twenty minutes past nine communication is made between Dundee and Quebec. The rest of the hour is for intercourse between Dundee and other towns. The same is done with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, &c., each town having an hour for itself. - L.

Dundee, June 21, 1845.
From this letter it is clear that Lindsay then contemplated an uninsulated wire across the Atlantic in connection with what have come to be known as earth-batteries at the stations along the coasts. His plan of protecting the wire from the corrosive action of the sea-water was evidently borrowed from Sir Humphry Davy's proposal of 1824 for the protection of the copper sheathing of ships by strips of zinc; while the further suggestion, on which he insists so much, of welding the various lengths of wire by electricity, if not original with him, was at all events a very early recognition of a process which has cropped up again in recent years, and which is now largely employed.

Between 1845 and 1853 Lindsay does not appear to have done anything in furtherance of his Atlantic project, being probably wholly absorbed in his linguistic and chronological studies. At all events, we hear nothing from him until March 11, 1853, when a notice appeared in the 'Dundee Advertiser' of a lecture which he proposed to give on the ensuing Tuesday at the Thistle Hall.

In the same paper a week later a report of the lecture is given as follows:-
Telegraphic Communication.

On Tuesday evening our learned and ingenious townsman, Mr J B Lindsay, delivered a lecture on the above subject, one with which he has an acquaintance second to no man in the kingdom. It would be impossible, in the limited space at our disposal, to give any vidimus of the lecture; we can only indicate the outline of a recent discovery made by Mr Lindsay, involving a principle which, if capable of acting irrespective of distance (and we see no reason to doubt that it is), must by-and-by revolutionise all our ideas of time and space. Mr Lindsay stated the principle to be that submerged wires, such as those now used for telegraphic intelligence between this country and Ireland and France, were no longer necessary. By a peculiar arrangement of the wires at the sides of rivers or seas, the electric influence can be made to pass on through the water itself. This proposition was certainly startling, but he illustrated it on a small scale by means of a water trough, and, so far as the experiment went, it faithfully developed the principle Mr Lindsay, after concluding these experiments, proceeded to point out the lines which appeared to him most eligible for transmitting telegraphic intelligence throughout the world; and, having done so, he wound up with a peroration of great beauty, in which the wonders to be achieved by electric influence in the days to come were eloquently set forth. It is a fine sight to see this learned and philosophic man pursuing the studies of science and literature, not for the sake of any empty applause, but for those pure pleasures they are in themselves so well fitted to bestow. At the same time, it is gratifying to know that there are many people capable of appreciating the modest and retiring character of Mr Lindsay, - a fact which was clearly evidenced on Tuesday evening by the numerous and most respectable meeting which then assembled to hear his scientific lecture.
In the following August Lindsay delivered another lecture (probably the same) in Glasgow, and so sanguine was be at this time of the practicability of his method that be actually patented it on June 5, 1854. The following account, which I have condensed from the specification of his patent, explains the modus operandi, and also shows how well be understood the conditions of the problem:-
My invention consists of a mode of transmitting telegraphic messages by means of electricity or magnetism through and across water without submerged wires, the water being made available as the connecting and conducting medium by the following means:-

On the land, on the side from which the message is to be sent, I place a battery and telegraph instrument, to which are attached two wires terminating in metal balls, tubes, or plates placed in the water or in moist ground adjacent to the water at a certain distance apart, according to the width of the water to be crossed (the distance between the two balls, plates, or tubes to be greater than across the water when practicable). On the land which is situated on the opposite side of the water, and to which the message is to be conveyed, I place two similar metal balls, plates, or tubes, immersed as above stated, and having wires attached to them which lead to, and are in connection with, another battery and needle indicator, or other suitable telegraphic instrument, A, A in the diagram (fig. 2) show the position of the battery and instrument on one side of the water, z; B, B, the battery and instrument on the opposite side; C, D, E, F, metallic or charcoal terminators; G, H, I, K, wires insulated in the usual way, and connecting the terminators, batteries, and instruments, as shown.

As regards the power or primary agent, it may be either voltaic, galvanic, or magnetic electricity, and the apparatus for evolving the same, such as is used for ordinary telegraphic purposes.

As regards the indicating apparatus, I propose to employ any of the instruments in known use which are most efficient for my purpose, observing that the needle indicator may be arranged either in a vertical or in a horizontal position, and that the coil of wire which actuates the needle may be increased or diminished according to circumstances.

Suppose it is required to transmit a message from A, the operator completes the circuit of the electric current as ordinarily practised. It will be evident that the current will have two courses open to it, the one being directly back through the water from C to D, and the other across the water from C to E, along the wires I K, through the instrument B, and back from F to D. Now, I have found that if each of the two distances C D and E F be greater than C E and D F, the resistances through C E and D F will be so much less than that through the water between C and D, that more of the current will pass across the water, through the opposite wires, and recross at F, than take the direct course C D; or, more correctly speaking, the current will divide itself between the two courses in inverse ratio to their resistances. As cases may arise, from local or other causes, such as not to admit of the distance between the immersed plates being greater than the distance across the water, I propose, then, to augment the force of the batteries, and to increase the size of the plates, so as to compel a sufficient portion of the current to cross. I prefer, however, when circumstances admit of it, employing the first method.
Lindsay's first public trials were across the Earl Grey Docks at Dundee, and then across the Tay at Glencarse, where the river is nearly three-quarters of a mile wide. Of the few friends who assisted at these experiments Mr Loudon of Dundee is, I believe, the only one now left. He tells us that Lindsay would station them on one side of the Tay, enjoining them to watch the galvanometer and note down how the needle moved. He would then insert his plates in the water on their side of the river, and, crossing over to the opposite side, would complete his arrangements. With a battery of twenty-four Bunsen cells he would make a few momentary contacts, reversing the connections a few times so as to produce right and left deflections of the galvanometer needle. Then he would return and compare the deflections of the needle which they had noted with the order in which he had himself made the battery contacts, and on finding them to correspond he would be supremely happy.

In 1854 Lindsay was in London, and brought his plans to the notice of the Electric Telegraph Company. It is now curious to remark that Sir W H Preece, who, as we shall see later on, became himself in after years an eminent wireless-telegraph inventor, was the officer who was deputed to assist him and report on his method. Sir William tells us that these were almost the first electrical experiments of any importance in which he ever took part, and in a letter to the writer, dated October 16, 1898, he adds: "I remember Lindsay very well. He came up to London with his 'great invention,' and I assisted him in making his experiments in our gutta-percha testing tank at Percy Wharf on the Thames. We used the old sand battery and galvanometers - ohms and volts were not invented then - and showed that by varying the distance apart of the plates on each side of the tank we varied the strength of the signals. I have no record of the results, but they showed the feasibility of the plan. I had, however, to crush poor Lindsay by telling him that it was not new. Morse in 1842 had done the same thing, and Alexander Bain had also tried about the same time a similar experiment on the Serpentine, but I have not found any published record of it."

In August 1854 Lindsay carried out a series of experiments at Portsmouth, in which, according to a notice in the 'Morning Post' (August 28), he completely succeeded in transmitting signals across the mill dam, where it is about 600 yards wide.

Lindsay repeated these experiments at intervals and at various places, indeed whenever and wherever he had the chance, his greatest performance being across the Tay, from Dundee to Woodhaven, where the river is nearly two miles broad. On one of these occasions, and when an Atlantic telegraph began to be seriously debated, the difficulty of finding a steamer large enough to carry the cable was discussed, when Lindsay quietly remarked, "If it were possible to provide stations at not more than twenty miles distant all the way across the Atlantic, I would save them the trouble of laying any cable."

In September 1859 Lindsay read a paper before the British Association at Aberdeen "On Telegraphing without Wires," which drew from Lord Rosse, the president of the section, special commendation. Prof Faraday and (Sir) G B Airy, then Astronomer-Royal, also added their approval of the views enunciated. Prof Thomson (now Lord Kelvin) was also present, and, as is well known, was then deeply engaged with Atlantic cable projects. History does not say what he thought of the poor Dundee lecturer, but, with the experience of forty years, we can easily guess.
A brief abstract of the paper was published in the Annual Report of the Association for 1859, but a fuller account appeared in the 'Dundee Advertiser,' from which I take the following interesting details:-
The author has been engaged in experimenting on the subject, and in lecturing on it in Dundee, Glasgow, and other places since 1831. Recently he had made additional experiments, and succeeded in crossing the Tay where it was three-quarters of a mile broad. His method had always been to immerse two plates or sheets of metal on the one side, and connect them by a wire passing through a coil to move a needle, and to have on the other side two sheets similarly connected, and nearly opposite the two former. Experiments had shown that only a fractional part of the electricity generated goes across, and that the quantity that thus goes across can be increased in four ways:

(1) by an increased battery power;
(2) by increasing the surface of the immersed sheets;
(3) by increasing the coil that moves the receiving needle;
(4) by increasing the lateral distance of the sheets.

In cases where lateral distance could be got he recommended increasing it, as then a smaller battery power would suffice. In telegraphing by this method to Ireland or France abundance of lateral distance could be got, but for America the lateral distance in Britain was much less than the distance across. In the greater part of his experiments the distance at the sides had been double the distance across; but in those on the Tay the lateral distance was the smaller, being only half a mile, while the distance across was three-quarters of a mile.

Of the four elements above mentioned, he thought that if any one were doubled the portion of electricity that crossed would also be doubled, and if all the elements were doubled the quantity transmitted would be eight times as great. In the experiments across the Tay the battery was of 4 square feet of zinc, the immersed sheets contained about 90 square feet of metal, the weight of the copper coil was about 6 lb., and the lateral distance was, as just stated, less than the transverse; but if it had been a mile, and the distance across also a mile, the signals would, no doubt, have been equally distinct. Should this law (when the lateral distance is equal to the transverse) be found correct, the following table might then be formed:-

Zinc for battery. Immersed sheets. Weight of coil Distance crossed
sq. ft. sq. ft lb. miles.
4 90 6 1
8 180 12 8
16 360 24 64
32 720 48 512
64 1440 96 4096
128 2880 192 32,768

But supposing the lateral distance to be only half the transverse, then the space crossed might be 16,000 miles; and if it was only a fourth, then there would be 8000 miles - a much greater distance than the breadth of the Atlantic. Further experiments were, however, necessary to determine this law, but, according to his calculations, he thought that a battery of 130 square feet, immersed sheets of 3000 square feet, and a coil of 200 Ib., would be sufficient to cross the Atlantic with the lateral distance that could be obtained in Great Britain.
After the reading of the paper Lindsay carried out some very successful experiments across the river Dee, in the presence of Lord Rosse, Prof Jacobi of St Petersburg, and other members of the Association. In February 1860 he made Liverpool the scene of his operations, but there, strange to say, he had not the success which hitherto attended him. The experiments failed, being ,"counteracted by some unaccountable influence which he had not before met with." However, in the following July he was again successful at Dundee in his experiments across the Tay, below the Earn, where the river is more than a mile wide. In communicating these results to the 'Dundee Advertiser' (July 10, 1860), he says
The experiment was successful, and the needle was strongly moved; but as I had no person with me capable of sending or reading a message, it [regular telegraphic signalling] was not attempted.
This was Lindsay's last public connection with the telegraph, but to the end of his life (June 29, 1862) he remained perfectly convinced of the soundness of his views and of their ultimate success.

Last Updated September 2023